Texas A&M Aggies: Clarence McKinney

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With a backfield as deep as Texas A&M's was in 2013, it wasn't easy to find a healthy number of carries for everyone.

Four scholarship running backs, all with different talents, shared carries not only with each other, but with quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was the team's leading rusher and had the most carries of any Aggie each of the last two seasons.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTra Carson is making a push for more carries in Texas A&M's backfield rotation.
For instance, Tra Carson's role primarily consisted of short-yardage situations, including third downs and goal-to-go scenarios. Given his size (6 feet, 230 pounds), it seemed appropriate. But in several instances, including late in the season against Missouri and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke, Carson showed he was more than a power back: he had some agility and speed also.

"Maybe y'all should have [been surprised] because y'all hadn't seen me do it," Carson told reporters last week. "But I wasn't surprised."

With Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- last season's leader in touches and yards among the running backs -- having moved on, there are likely to be more touches to go around this fall for the running backs: Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and redshirt freshman James White.

Carson put together a solid spring and is positioning himself to be more than a situational back this fall.

"He's really smart, he understands what we're doing," running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's running the ball really well right now, and as you know, when he gets that opportunity to get in the secondary he can really hurt you."

When he arrived in Aggieland, Carson needed some work and patience. A transfer from Oregon, he had to sit out the 2012 season per NCAA transfer rules. McKinney said there was some obstacles for Carson, but he waited his turn and met that challenge head on.

"Tra's biggest issue when he first got here has been conditioning," McKinney said. "He's lost about 15 pounds since he's been here. He's picked up our offense."

Carson said he was initially drawn to Oregon coming out of high school because of his friendship with current NFL running back LaMichael James, who hails from the same high school that Carson does -- Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau -- and was playing for the Ducks at the time Carson committed.

Though he appeared in 10 games as a true freshman, Carson decided Oregon wasn't the right fit and decided to return to the Lone Star State.

"For me, it was the weather, it was too far away from home," Carson said. "I wasn't ready to make that adjustment as an 18-year-old kid out of high school. Now that I'm matured, it's just different."

Carson said he and James remain close friends to this day.

Now a junior, Carson is working to be a well-rounded player -- not just a running back -- for the Aggies. He played on special teams last season and continued to get work in that phase this spring, earning practice time as a member of the kickoff return team, though not as the primary return man. Malena served a similar role last season.

With 58 carries in 11 games last season, Carson has yet to be a full-time player. If Carson has to carry an increased load this season, McKinney has no doubt that he can.

"He just understands what we're doing really well," McKinney said. "He's really great in protection. He's not just a big back that's in the third-down and goal-line package. He's a guy who can make people miss and he can play in our open sets as well as our big sets. He's a complete back."

Redemption chance for Manziel vs. LSU

November, 20, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In Texas A&M's brief history in its new league, Johnny Manziel and the Aggies have had the opportunity to beat every SEC opponent they've faced, except two: Florida and LSU.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesLSU will see a different Johnny Manziel than the one it faced last October in College Station.
A&M's two losses this season came to teams -- Alabama and Auburn -- that it defeated last season. Florida wasn't on the schedule this fall and won't be next season so it will be some time before the Aggies get another shot at the Gators.

But if Manziel and Co. want redemption against LSU, the opportunity affords itself on Saturday in Death Valley. The Tigers are the dragon that Johnny Football has yet to slay.

The 2012 season was a wild one for Manziel, who became the first freshman in college football history to take home Heisman Trophy. Team after team seemed to struggle to find an answer for the unpredictability that Manziel possesses.

LSU was not one of those teams.

The Tigers are the team that held Manziel to career-worsts in several areas. according to ESPN Stats and Information. His completion percentage was the lowest he has ever had (51.8) in a game. So were his yards per pass attempt (4.9). His minus-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio was a career low as was his Total QBR (25.8). His signature running ability? That was bottled up too, as LSU held him to 27 yards, a season-low in 2012 and a career-low 1.6 yards per carry.

A lot of factors went into that performance and much has changed since the two teams met on Oct. 20, 2012 at Kyle Field.

LSU's defensive front was filled with elite talent last season. Five players from LSU's two-deep in the front seven were chosen in the first five rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (four of them were juniors who declared for early entry into the draft – defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter).

While the Tigers are still talented up front, they're not quite as experienced and might not be up to the caliber that last season's group was.

"I think their defense last year, you had a bunch of NFL guys [who] were pass rushers," Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "Not that these guys aren't, but those guys were really, really good. It was just a battle between our tackles and their outside rush guys."

Those battles were key in LSU's success. Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis appeared to craft an effective plan against Manziel, who had a tendency to escape the pocket and devastate teams with his running ability. Combine the strategy Chavis and his assistants employed with the speed and athleticism of guys like Mingo, Montgomery and others, and you had the desired result for the Tigers.

Earlier this season, Texas A&M offensive line coach B.J. Anderson recalled specific strategies used by the LSU defensive ends.

"They rush hard vertically, then you can tell Chavis has given them spots [on the field to pause]," Anderson said. "When they get to [the spot, they] stop and they squeeze and press those [offensive] tackles. They want him to feel the pressure, but they know if they blow up the field, he'll just run underneath him and there he goes. We had to adjust to that."

LSU head coach Les Miles said that there are elements of the 2012 attack that the Tigers will employ, but it won't necessarily be the same game plan.

"We're going to do similar things," Miles said. "We're going to not necessarily do what we did a year ago, but I think some of the principles will be the same."

The Tigers also appeared careful not to "over-rush" too hard vertically up the field off the edges to prevent open running lanes for Manziel. However, they were still able to get good pursuit, often times bringing a quick linebacker or even a safety off the edge to utilize their speed and catch Manziel before he could escape. That helped them limit him to a career-low 2.6 yards per play on plays outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

"You'd like for him to be pressured, not only by a rush lane, but by coverage," Miles said. "In other words, not necessarily say hold, but you would push the pocket at him, and hopefully his running opportunities would minimize as his time to throw it grew short, he had to make a decision. And that's what you'd like to have happen.

"And then cover during that time. At those other times, where you add a guy to the rush, now you'd better cover it very quickly and then you'd better be able to chase. I think chase is a part of the game, as well."

This will be a grand stage and a challenging setting, as LSU is an elite home team that's 25-1 at Tiger Stadium since 2010. Manziel, however, has thrived on the road, where he's 9-0 and has been responsible for 31 touchdowns with just eight turnovers, while averaging 417.2 yards of offense.

Manziel has improved significantly since the teams' meeting in 2012, the seventh game of his career. Miles noted earlier this week that Manziel is "bigger, faster, stronger," and it's clear that he has improved as a passer, something that should help him this week.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin noted that not much stock should be put into last season's game because of the difference in the teams, as well as the fact that the Aggies progressed and even changed some after the 24-19 loss to the Tigers last October.

"I'll be honest with you, there's two different football teams on the field this year," Sumlin said. "They lost a bunch of guys, particularly edge players defensively. I think it goes without saying that offensively, schematically, we changed as the season went on after that football game. Last year's video is important, but not nearly as important as the last seven or eight weeks of video."

Style and substance for A&M RB Malena

November, 13, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For his last walk through the tunnel at Kyle Field, senior running back Ben Malena felt like he needed a grand entrance.

[+] EnlargeBen Malena
AP Photo/David J. PhillipBen Malena knows how to have fun, but he's also proven to be a strong leader for Texas A&M.
As part of senior day on Saturday, the Aggies' last game at home this season, each senior was introduced one-by-one and given a chance to be applauded by the crowd. So Malena, with the flair and flamboyance that has been his signature all season, walked in with the flashiest entrance of all.

When Kyle Field public address announce Chace Murphy introduced Malena, his teammate -- sophomore running back Tra Carson -- walked through the tunnel with a black cape, with the words "CASH OUT KING" in bold gold text, all caps.

Like a boxer stepping into the ring for a championship bout, Malena strutted in behind Carson, with his right hand in the air, fingers rubbing together for the "Cashing out" sign that has become a signature move for Malena and the Aggies when they score touchdowns. Of course, it wasn't complete without his headband, which has also become a Malena signature, with the hashtag "#CASHOUTKING" draped across the forehead.

Not a bad way to enter for the final time in front of the home crowd.

"I was sitting there talking to my roommate, and I figured if they're going to give me an opportunity to run out like they do in the NFL and call people one by one, I've got to do something crazy," Malena said after the game on Saturday. "I had my roommate do it and thanks to Tra Carson. He helped me out with walking it out. It was pretty cool."

With cameras trained on virtually his every move each Saturday, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel gets the majority of the national attention/discussion for his on-field actions, but it's Malena who has displayed the most style and flair among the Aggies this season. And he's become a fan favorite while doing it.

"Day to day, I guess he's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said with a laugh. "You don't notice him during the day. You don't notice him in meetings. You don't notice him at practice. He doesn't say a whole lot. But when the lights come on and it's time to play that game, he's a different person."

But there is substance to accompany Malena's style. He's perhaps the most consistent of the team's four scholarship running backs when it comes to production. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns (nine) and has been a steady, though not necessarily explosive presence, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

He's a threat in the passing game as a receiver, catching a pass in all but one game this season and he's the best pass-protecting running back the Aggies have. He also is a willing special teams player, be it on kickoff return or kick or punt coverage -- whatever the coaching staff asks of him.

But probably his most talked-about quality among A&M players and coaches is his leadership.

"He's had some great moments here," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's really been an emotional leader for us, maybe not as much as y'all see during the game, but in particular during practice time and in the offseason. There's a reason he's a captain and a reason why he plays a lot of special teams. He's been a leader by example, and this year he's been a vocal leader."

The style part seems to come naturally to Malena. He's been "cashing out" for years, even back to his early seasons at A&M when he was wearing No. 23 (he wore No. 1 in 2012 and this season). In an in-stadium jumbotron segment called "Ask the Aggies" that plays during home games, several teammates called Malena one of the "coolest" players on the team. And he likes to have fun with it, evidenced by his answer when a reporter asked him before senior day what his headband would say.

"I can't give that information out," Malena said smiling. "I change it up sometimes. I can't give the senior day bandana away. [My teammates] ask me every week, 'What's it going to say this week? I say 'Man, if I tell you, I have to kill you. You just have to wait until Saturday.'"

Malena enjoyed his senior day to the fullest, jumping into the crowd to celebrate the Aggies' win over Mississippi State with fans after the game. He even tossed his bandana into the crowd as he walked toward the locker room.

"I figured, why not?" Malena said. "Might as well jump in the stands and enjoy this moment."

Running back depth key for A&M

November, 7, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Coming into this season, there was much discussion from Texas A&M coaches about its options in its offensive backfield.

[+] EnlargeTrey Williams
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithTexas A&M's Trey Williams is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.
The stable of running backs the Aggies was both deep and talented this summer. Ben Malena was the returning starter of the group, the senior who found his way into the starting lineup a year ago, and Trey Williams, who contributed as a freshman, was back for what he hoped would be a super sophomore season.

A pair of sophomores, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams, joined the group. Both had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, as Carson transferred from Oregon and Williams from Oklahoma.

How carries would be divided was a frequent question from fans. All four were talented and highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and there was no question each had the ability to earn playing time.

But because of injuries, the Aggies haven't always had all four backs healthy and available for the entire season. Because of that, the depth they have built has become valuable as players shuffle in and out of the lineup.

On Saturday, in the Aggies' 57-7 victory over UTEP, Carson gave the Kyle Field crowd a scare after being carried away on a stretcher. Fortunately for the Aggies, Carson only had a sprained neck, but it underscores how critical it has been to the Aggies to have so many options.

"It's really helpful to have more than one guy," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "If you've got one guy and he goes down, you're scrambling for the next guy. Our situation, it's unfortunate that Tra had the injury that he went down with, but the next guy up is just as good, if not better. That's a really good position to be in as a running backs coach."

Early in the season, it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who battled through ailments. Brandon Williams had offseason foot surgery and missed the season opener against Rice. Trey Williams battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Aggies' games against Sam Houston State and Alabama. Carson has appeared in every game this year, though his status for Saturday's game against Mississippi State is uncertain.

The only player who hasn't missed game time because of an injury is Malena, who has 456 yards and eight touchdowns, best among the Aggies' running backs.

As Trey Williams (297 yards, five touchdowns) has become more and more healthy, his per-carry production has improved. He is averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and has shown the explosiveness that the Aggies hoped to see when they recruited him at out of Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School.

Carson (269 yards, five touchdowns) has served as a hammer, a back who can get it done between the tackles. The contributions of Brandon Williams (206 yards, one touchdown) wasn't as significant at midseason, and he did not get any touches at Ole Miss or against Auburn. But he has carried the ball 16 times in the last two weeks, and he scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

Not surprisingly, quarterback Johnny Manziel is again the team's leading rusher (564 yards, eight touchdowns) but having a host of guys to hand off to has been valuable to A&M's offensive success and running game, which ranks 25th in the country (210.78 yards per game) and fourth in the SEC.

Five things: Texas A&M-Vanderbilt

October, 26, 2013

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M looks to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss while Vanderbilt tries to build on a big win when the two teams meet for the first time in their respective program histories at 12:21 p.m. Eastern time. The No. 16 Aggies (5-2, 2-2) lost 45-41 to Auburn while the Commodores (4-3, 1-3) scored their first SEC win of the season last week, a 31-27 victory over Georgia.

Here are five things to keep an eye on heading into today's cross-divisional SEC clash:

1. Who are the quarterbacks? The question remains whether Johnny Manziel will take the snaps for the Aggies. Earlier this week, head coach Kevin Sumlin called him "hopeful," and offered little else. On Friday night, a source stuck to that line, saying Manziel was "hopeful" and likely a game-time decision. If he can't go, the backups for Texas A&M are junior Matt Joeckel and true freshman Kenny Hill and the most likely scenario would be Joeckel getting the start. He started the season opener against Rice when Manziel had to sit out the first two quarters with a suspension, and has the most experience in the offense. Vanderbilt will be trotting out a new starter: freshman Patton Robinette. Last week, Robinette replaced Austyn Carta-Samuels, who suffered a left leg injury against Georgia. Head coach James Franklin called Robinette the "perfect fit" for the Vanderbilt offense earlier this week.

2. The real show is at receiver: Two of the SEC's and nation's best receivers will be on display. For Texas A&M, it's sophomore receiver Mike Evans, for Vanderbilt, it's senior receiver Jordan Matthews. Matthews has a chance to make some history today. He needs just 14 yards to become the SEC's career leader in receiving yards, so he'll likely break that record. Evans made some history himself last week, breaking Texas A&M's school record for single-game receiving yards (which he owned after his Sept. 14 performance against Alabama) by posting 287 against Auburn and he became the first SEC receiver to post multiple games of 225+ receiving yards. Both are big-time playmakers so it should be fun to watch.

3. Texas A&M's struggling defense: The Aggies have had their ups and downs, but it's mostly been rough sledding for them on defense this season. They allowed a season-high 379 rushing yards to Auburn last week and gave up 45 points. The Aggies have allowed three fourth-quarter touchdowns in each of the last two weeks. That kind of crunch-time production won't get it done in SEC play. They were fortunate to get away with it at Ole Miss but it came back to bite them against Auburn.

4. Improving Vanderbilt defense: Last week, the Commodores put together their best performance of the season defensively. In the 31-27 win over Georgia, they held the Bulldogs to season lows in points (27), total yards (221), rushing yards (107) and first downs (16). Not bad against a team with a quarterback the caliber of Aaron Murray, who's the SEC's career leader in passing yards. The Commodores' performance included holding the Bulldogs to 80 yards and just five first downs in the second half. Texas A&M's offense averages 46.9 points per game and is third nationally in yards per game (588.7) so it'll be compelling to see how that plays out.

5. Touchdowns in the red zone: Sumlin and offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney stressed the importance of getting touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals and there were a couple times last week where the Aggies had to settle for three points instead of six or seven. Vanderbilt is one of the nation's best at punching it in once the offense gets inside the 20-yard line. The Commodores score a touchdown on 77.4 percent of their red zone trips, which is the best rate in the SEC and third in the country. The Aggies are sixth in the conference and 34th in the country, succeeding at a 68.8 percent touchdown rate in the red zone. In a close game, those extra points come in handy.

Five things: Auburn-Texas A&M

October, 19, 2013

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- What a difference a year makes.

The Auburn team coming into Kyle Field today is much different from the one that hosted Texas A&M a year ago. Both teams are 5-1 and ranked in the top 25 (A&M is seventh, Auburn is 24th), and each has a head coach known for his innovative offensive mind (Gus Malzahn for Auburn; Kevin Sumlin for A&M), so it should be an entertaining and compelling 60 minutes in this SEC West Division clash. Here are five things to watch:

1. Auburn run game vs. A&M run D: Auburn is one of the best rushing teams in the country (287 yards per game), and it's no fluke. The Tigers have three solid running backs (Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant), plus a starting quarterback who is a running threat, too (Nick Marshall). Texas A&M's run defense is 13th in the SEC (201.17 yards allowed per game) and struggled through much of the first half, though defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was encouraged by his unit's performance against Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 133 yards on the ground. This battle will be key.

2. Defending Manziel: No defense has really had an answer for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The only team to defeat the Aggies, which was No. 1 Alabama, benefited from two interceptions but still conceded 562 yards to the redshirt sophomore quarterback. Manziel bounced back from two turnovers last week vs. Ole Miss to lead a come-from-behind effort in a 41-38 win. How Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson attacks Manziel will be interesting to watch. A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said Auburn has one of the more talented defenses that Texas A&M will see this year.

3. Will A&M generate a pass rush? Texas A&M has been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to sacking opposing passers. The Aggies have just five sacks this season; Illinois is the only team in the nation that has fewer (four). Snyder stressed that his group has to be able to generate a pass rush sometimes without having to blitz. If they can't, Marshall and his Auburn teammates will have time to do what they want offensively.

4. Tempo: Both teams like to play at a fast pace. Expect Texas A&M to continue that, as usual. Will Auburn? Malzahn noted that the Tigers are at their best at a high pace, but earlier this week, he told reporters, "Sometimes you may need to try to keep it away from [Manziel]." Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who knows Malzahn well, tried to be methodical in the first half of the Rebels' game with A&M last week. Will Auburn employ a similar strategy in hopes of keeping the game close heading into the fourth quarter?

5. Wrinkles: Auburn played freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson last week in place of Marshall, who rested with a knee injury, and Johnson played well. Could he see action on Saturday? How will the Auburn defensive front attack Manziel? The Aggies have seen a variety of defensive fronts all season and at times have had to adjust pass-protection schemes on the fly. Will the Tigers mix it up? Will defensive back Deshazor Everett, A&M's best defensive player, play (he left Ole Miss game with an injury), and if so, will he line up at cornerback or safety (or both) now that safety Floyd Raven is healthy again? How much will Manziel run the ball on designed draw plays? Against Arkansas two weeks ago, there were no designed runs in the game plan. Last week against Ole Miss, he did it with some regularity. These two head coaches and their staffs are creative, so don't be surprised to see a few things you haven't yet this season.

RB Williams emerging for A&M

October, 18, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Game-breaking speed. Acceleration. Elusiveness. The ability to change directions at the drop of a dime. These are all traits that attracted college coaches from all over the country to Spring (Texas) Dekaney High School to recruit Trey Williams.

[+] EnlargeTrey Williams
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsTrey Williams has improved his game and has seen an increased role in the Texas A&M offense.
Now finally healthy and finally coming into his own as a running back, the Texas A&M sophomore displayed just about all of those qualities in one highlight reel-worthy touchdown run last week against Ole Miss.

His 18-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter of the 41-38 victory -- Williams' first of two touchdown runs that night -- saw the 5-foot-8, 195-pound speedster make no fewer than eight Rebels defenders miss and saw him change direction three times, including a jump cut that seemed to magically sprung him from in the middle of a crowd into open field where all that became necessary was making one more defender miss en route to the end zone.

Williams' own description of the score is a modest one.

"I was just doing what I was pretty much used to in high school: seeing a hole and just trying to hit it as fast as I can and score a touchdown," he said. "That's the best thing for the team, I guess."

For Texas A&M fans, this is the Trey Williams they've been waiting to see. An ESPN 300 prospect and four-star recruit, Williams was ranked fifth at his position and 56th among all players in the 2012 recruiting class and arrived in Aggieland with a boatload of hype and expectations.

As one of the originators of the "Agg Swagg Movement" in the 2012 class, Williams came out Dekaney as an all-everything back who compiled a whopping 8,110 yards and 86 touchdowns in his high school career. He was a highlight waiting to happen because of his speed and elusiveness and helped the Wildcats to a Class 5A Division II state championship in his senior season.

While he won the kickoff return specialist job in his true freshman season, he didn't see as many carries as one might expect a caliber of that recruit might see. Part of it had to do with depth already in the backfield and part of it because Williams needed to become a more complete back.

"I think, just like most guys from high school, they were just handing it to him," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He didn't have to worry about protection. He didn't have to worry about blocking."

Though he appeared in all 13 games last season, there were four games which Williams didn't have any carries, including A&M's showdown against LSU. Sumlin said that Williams' need to become better in pass protection was at the heart of the decision.

Fast forward to 2013 and the diminutive, yet powerful back has made significant strides in that area. After a slow start to this season while bothered by an ankle injury, Williams is steadily working his way back to 100 percent health but has also become a much more versatile and complete back.

Williams has been key for the Aggies lately, leading the team in rushing on Sept. 28 at Arkansas and scoring two touchdowns against Ole Miss. He still is the primary kickoff returner and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry at running back this season.

"I think Trey is really growing into the position," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "He's finally healthy, first of all. He showed what he can do with the ball in his hands the other night. We've all seen it. He's really, really good with the ball in his hands and he has a better understanding of protections and that allows us to play him a lot more."

Given the lack of touches his first season, Williams admits he briefly considered transferring after his freshman season. But he discussed it with his family and decided against it, saying "I didn't come here to quit." Making the transition to the Aggies’ spread offense presented Williams with a difficult learning curve.

In high school, Williams toyed with opponents. In the SEC, defenders with NFL futures make it harder to do such a thing. But now, Williams seems to be adjusting well and beginning to realize some of those lofty expectations.

"It humbled me a lot and it actually opened my eyes that everybody's not going to just adjust to what you want to do," Williams said. "I had to adjust to it otherwise I wasn't going to be able to play. I had to learn the spread offense because I had never before been in the spread offense, ever in my life. So I had to learn how to adjust to that. Now I'm just here and God blessed me to do whatever I've been doing on the field."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — After losing a left tackle who was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft and a center who was a two-year starter at the position and a four-year starter overall, it was easy to believe that there would be a drop-off in performance from the Texas A&M offensive line.

Through six games, the No. 7 Aggies can safely say all is well up front. Even with two newcomers and some shuffling by moving returning starters around, the unit is again performing at a high level and is one of the reasons Texas A&M's offense continues to be one of the best in college football.

While it's difficult to replicate what the Aggies had last season, when all five starters last season played multiple seasons together, it's easy to see how well this year's group is doing. All it takes is watching quarterback Johnny Manziel drop back and sit comfortably in the pocket for five, six and sometimes seven seconds looking for a receiver or deciding to use his scrambling ability to gain yardage.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesJake Matthews is playing well at left tackle after playing right tackle in 2012.
And in the Aggies' victory over Arkansas on Sept. 28, the line paved the way for two second-half touchdown drives that consisted of all running plays. Texas A&M had more rushing yards than passing yards.

"Offensive line has played really good, with the exception of one game," offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said. "I think those young guys in one of those six games -- I think it was SMU -- had some struggles. But for the most part, they've played great."

Against SMU, there were some penalties and self-inflicted errors that the Aggies needed to clean up. Their performance against No. 1 Alabama was strong and they've been consistent, for the most part, the rest of the year.

The transition began back in spring, moving Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle to replace Luke Joeckel. To fill Matthews' void, right guard Cedric Ogbuehi kicked out to right tackle. Jake's younger brother Mike Matthews stepped in as the starter at center and redshirt freshman Germain Ifedi slid in at right guard. The only player still in the same position last season is left guard Jarvis Harrison.

Behind that quintet, the Aggies are putting up 586.5 yards per game (No. 3 in the country) and have allowed only seven sacks, which puts them in the top 30 statistically in the country. They're 20th in rushing yards (224.6 yards per game) and sixth in passing yards (361.8 per game).

"They're getting better every week," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It's hard to compare this year's group to last year's because they're only six games in, but I can tell you every week they are getting better."

The biggest question marks coming into the season centered around the first-time starters. So far, they've answered the questions.

"I'm really pleased with the young guys," offensive line coach B.J. Anderson said. "I think they've made some strides. They've played in some atmospheres where we had to communicate. Mike's done a really good job. I've changed protections on him a couple games. ... I'm really pleased with where he's at, and the same way with Germain. He's getting better every game and we're fixing some things that need to get fixed and we'll just keep working."

Anderson noted that they're not holding anything back from Mike Matthews, who is just a sophomore, when it comes to game-planning and protections. That's critical considering the vast array of defensive looks Anderson said opponents have thrown at the Aggies.

"If you had told me that I had that flexibility back in August, I'm not sure I would have believed you," Anderson said. "But he's got the kitchen sink right now. I'm not doing anything that I didn't do with Pat Lewis, who was a senior. He's able to make all the adjustments I need and I'm really pleased with the mental work he does during the week, preparation-wise."

The "older guys" -- senior Jake Matthews and juniors Harrison and Ogbuehi -- have also shined. Matthews' adjustment to left tackle has been smooth, as has Ogbuehi's to right tackle. Harrison has impressed Anderson with his effort week to week.

"Jake's Jake and Ced's doing a good job and Jarvis Harrison is playing his tail off -- as well as he's played since I've been here," Anderson said. "He's playing with great effort. It shows on tape and I'm happy with those older guys."

Manziel's progression and mastery of the offense in the second season in the scheme has helped as well. Players say they notice Manziel has tried to stay in the pocket more often.

"I feel more this year that he hasn't scrambled as much and he has been more patient," Ogbuehi said. "He looks to throw more, too. He's always looking to make a big play with his arm, and that's good."

Perhaps the best aspect of this group is it has stayed healthy. The Aggies were fortunate to keep all five starters healthy last season, and that's been the case this year, too. It isn't a perfect group, but it is a smart, talented one that continues to improve every day.

"This year, we're still trying to get there but so far we're getting there," Ogbuehi said. "It's exciting so far what we've done in the little time we've had together."

Planning for success: Texas A&M

October, 17, 2013
Johnny ManzielAP Photo/Butch DillTexas A&M is taking very little from last year's 63-21 romp of Auburn as it prepares for the Tigers this season, as No. 24 Auburn is vastly different and improved from last season's 3-9 squad.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney's most vivid memory of the Aggies' trip to Auburn in 2012 is of the pregame festivities.

McKinney recalls being impressed by the flight of "Spirit," Auburn's bald eagle that flies in Jordan-Hare Stadium before games. He called it "probably the greatest pre-game atmosphere I'd ever seen."

As for the game, McKinney doesn't remember too much of it, for good reason. The Aggies were dominant from start to finish, racing out to a 28-0 lead fewer than 17 minutes into the game. They never looked back and finished with a dominating 63-21 victory.

"Once the game began, it felt like we just ran up and down the field on them," McKinney said. "I thought their players really didn't want to play at that particular time. This year's team, you watch the tape and they're a totally different team."

For that reason, A&M coaches aren't bothering to spend time looking at video of last year's blowout in order to game plan for this year's tilt, which is 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Kyle Field. So much about Auburn is different.

The biggest difference between the Tigers since the teams last met? They're winning. Auburn was 1-6 when it hosted the Aggies last season and were struggling mightily in former head coach Gene Chizik's final season.

Now, the No. 24 Tigers are 5-1 and nationally ranked. New head coach Gus Malzahn appears to have changed the attitude within the program and according to Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, it's easy to see.

"I just think they're playing with a lot of energy," Sumlin said. "Coach Malzahn and the new coaching staff have brought a lot of energy to the program ... and a winning attitude. Schematically, they've changed across the board. [They have] a lot of veteran coaches that have been in big-time situations. Obviously Gus has a tremendous background offensively and has had some real success wherever he's been, either as a coordinator or a head coach. Ellis Johnson is a veteran defensive coordinator and has assembled a staff that understands this league and understands preparation and you can see it. They're well-coached, they know what they're doing in all three phases and have their guys executing at a high level and playing with confidence."

Malzahn, like Sumlin, said he's not spending time looking back at last year's matchup either. Malzahn was the head coach at Arkansas State at the time.

"[I] really haven't," Malzahn said. "Last year, we really tried to put that to bed. From an opponent's standpoint, breaking them down, you really try your best to gather all the information you need to give your team an advantage, so we went back to last year some, but not specifically our game."

Auburn brings with it the seventh-best rushing offense in the country. The Tigers are averaging 287 yards per game on the ground and hope to continue that success against a Texas A&M run defense that is among the nation's worst, statistically. The Aggies are 104th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 201.17 yards per game.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was encouraged by A&M's effort against the run in the Aggies' 41-38 win against Ole Miss last week, though, as the Aggies allowed 133 rushing yards to the Rebels.

"We probably had our best performance against the run on Saturday," Snyder said. "You take away the one explosive [play] that [they] had (a 21-yard run by Jaylen Walton) and we hold them to just over 100 yards rushing. Nobody's done that [to Ole Miss] since Alabama. That was very pleasing to see."

Snyder said there are many similarities between Auburn's offense and Ole Miss', so he hopes that can help his defense's efforts this week.

Offensively, the No. 7 Aggies continue to roll, boasting the nation's No. 3 offense in total yardage per game and the No. 4 in scoring. Last week against the Rebels, they hit a lull in the middle quarters, scoring just seven total points in the second and third quarter combined, but started and finished strong. McKinney said the key to not hitting those lulls is avoiding self-inflicted errors.

"When you watch the tape from each game, when we've stalled as an offense, it's because of things we've done to ourselves," he said. "The penalties, the turnovers, things that you can't have happen if you want to score points. We're trying to find a rhythm and once we find our rhythm, we're really good."

And he, too, sees a different Auburn team on defense this year. It appears there isn't much that is the same from 2012 when the teams meet on Saturday.

"Defensively, those guys are playing extremely hard and they're very talented," McKinney said. "One of the more talented defenses we'll see all year. They play a base look and when you get teams that play base, they feel like they're really good all around and when you watch the tape that's what you see."
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Oregon State coach Mike Riley launched a new Twitter campaign on Tuesday to help the Beavers connect with recruits across the country; LSU’s Frank Wilson didn’t make the first edition of the ESPN recruiting power rankings, but he could be leading the poll by signing day; and a question and answer session on Wednesday helped identify what topics are most important with recruiting fans today.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley has more than 18,900 followers and is great communicating with fans on Twitter. So it was no surprise to see him launch a campaign Tuesday called “Tweet Film Tuesday” where he asked recruits to send him links to their film, and he and his staffers will then select 10 recruits to evaluate each week. With only 140 characters to work with, Riley didn’t explain how he and his assistants would pick the 10 recruits to evaluate, but the idea is ingenious. Not only does it help Riley and the Beaver coaches communicate with prospects in a way they’re already familiar with, it also allows the OSU coaches to find prospects they might not have been familiar with who are truly interested in the program. Also with Riley’s track record of uncovering hidden talent, you can all but guarantee there will be a story a few years down the road where the Beavers found a sleeper through this approach.

Midseason report: Texas A&M

October, 15, 2013
The 2013 season has been far from perfect so far for Texas A&M, but overall, it has still been pretty good.

Despite some of the injuries, defensive struggles, early-season attention (both positive and negative), sitting at 5-1 and No. 7 in the country is a pretty good place to be.

Many preseason questions have been answered. Will quarterback Johnny Manziel's offseason affect his play or affect the team? The answer is a resounding "no," and Manziel has been arguably the best player in college football through the first half of the season.

How will the Aggies' offense run with a new offensive coordinator, Clarence McKinney? So far, pretty smoothly. The Aggies haven't missed a beat in the transition from former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to McKinney as the playcaller. They're No. 3 in the nation in total offense, No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 2 in the all-important third-down conversion category. Mike Evans has emerged as one of the nation's best receivers and the running game has been strong.

Will the defense come along quickly? This one hasn't netted a positive answer. The Aggies have been one of the worst defensive teams in the country statistically, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game (474.3) and 104th against the run, though they have been middle of the pack on third downs (72nd). Youth, inexperience and ever-shifting personnel have made the job a challenging one in Year 2 for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder after an impressive first year in Aggieland when the Aggies' D outperformed expectations and operated with limited depth in 2012.

That being said, the Aggies have still won and lost only to the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama, by seven points. Certainly, they'd like to be undefeated, but if they continue to win in the second half of the season, a bright outlook lay ahead for Texas A&M.

Offensive MVP: Johnny Manziel
Anybody wondering if Manziel would have a "sophomore slump" or that his eventful offseason would affect him can forget about it. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has looked even better this season, completing 73.2 percent of his passes for 1,835 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 438 yards and five scores. He's focused on passing more, but is still as dangerous as ever with his feet and delivers in the clutch.

Defensive MVP: Deshazor Everett
If Everett could play every position on defense, you'd have to think the Aggies would utilize him as such. As it is, he has been terrific at both cornerback and safety, playing the first five games with a cast from a broken thumb suffered in preseason camp. He has 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns.

Quartet powers Aggies' running game

October, 2, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Nobody is going to confuse Texas A&M's offense with an old-school, power running attack.

The Aggies are a team that likes to operate at a fast pace, spread things out and get the ball to their playmakers in space.

[+] EnlargeTra Carson
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTailback Tra Carson rushed for 64 yards on nine carries in the Aggies' win over Arkansas.
But that doesn't mean they can't run the ball right at an opponent, which is what they did in their most recent win over Arkansas.

The second half of the Aggies' 45-33 win consisted of them running the ball 29 times and throwing just seven passes. For the first time since the AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma in January, the Aggies finished the game with more rushing yards (262) than passing (261). And that second half stretch included two drives, one of nine plays and one of seven, that were all running plays that ended in touchdowns.

"That's probably the first series we've had ever since we've been here [as a coaching staff] that we didn't attempt one pass and scored in a seven-, eight- or nine-play drive," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "That says a lot about your team, your versatility and about where our confidence factor lies with our offensive line and our running game."

What it also says is that the Aggies are deep at the running back position. All four of the Aggies' scholarship running backs -- Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams -- touched the football on Saturday and combined for 203 rushing yards.

It was just the second time this season that all four have been available for a game, and was perhaps the best performance for the group this season.

"It's a luxury," offensive coordinator and running backs coach Clarence McKinney said. "It was really good to see all four of those guys out there. They were not only being competitive within the game, but they were competing with each other. That's how they do it every day."

Malena is the starter and elder statesman of the group. He emerged as the starter last season, claiming the top spot over then-senior Christine Michael, who's now with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Malena's combination of running, receiving and blocking ability makes him a versatile option that fits the A&M offense well. He is the leader among the team's four running backs with 303 yards and seven touchdowns. Coaches have praised his reliability and leadership all season.

But Saturday was a true showcase for Carson and Trey Williams, who provided a formidable one-two punch themselves. Carson, who has impressed since his Aggie debut on Aug. 31 against Rice, is a big, physical, north-south type of running back who also has good speed for someone carrying 230 pounds.

Averaging 5.6 yards per carry, he's second among the team's running backs this season with 229 yards and four touchdowns.

"You see Tra Carson out there running hard," Malena said. "It takes more than one guy to tackle him."

Trey Williams had a 100-yard game last season in a blowout against Auburn, but he hasn't always been healthy in his A&M career. He's still not 100 percent healthy but showed that he's getting close to that on Saturday, leading the team with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.

"He's really, really good with the ball in his hands," McKinney said. "And he showed a little bit of that on Saturday and hopefully that'll kick start him for the rest of the year."

Brandon Williams missed the season opener while recovering from offseason foot surgery but has gradually been working his way back into the lineup. He showed his burst with a 20-yard carry against Arkansas and also has a touchdown reception to his name this season.

"He's the guy that probably has the most wire-to-wire potential," Sumlin said. "He's a home-run threat from anywhere."

The fascinating part about the Aggies' playcalling on Saturday, which led to 44 rushes and 30 pass attempts, is that there were no designed runs called for quarterback Johnny Manziel. McKinney noted that Manziel is going to run whether or not a run play is called for him but they wanted to limit how many hits he took.

Manziel wound up carrying the ball nine times for 59 yards with the four running backs accounting for the other 35 carries. He is still the team's overall leading rusher with 314 yards on the season.

But as the Aggies get deeper into their SEC schedule, they can do so knowing that they have a multitude of running back options to go to and so far, all of them have proven capable of delivering.

"We've got a variety of guys," Sumlin said. "Our staff has done a good job with those guys and making sure they're sharing the wealth and that the more you can share it, the healthier you're going to be throughout the year. We're not even halfway [through the season] and we've got some bruised up guys.

"They know that and they help each other and I'm pleased with the direction that whole position has gone."

Assessing the Aggies after five games

September, 30, 2013
Texas A&M is 4-1 after its first five games of the season. The Aggies split their first two SEC games and get a brief break with an open date this weekend. With the bulk of their league schedule coming up after the off week, let's analyze where the Aggies are and what's ahead:

The good

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Mike Evans might be the best receiver in the nation and a Heisman candidate.
Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans: These two had high expectations coming into the season based on their 2012 performances, and you could argue that they have exceeded them thus far in 2013, especially Evans. The sophomore receiver is making his case to be considered among the best receivers in the country, if not the best. Only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has more receiving yards than Evans' 691, but Evans's schedule includes Alabama, which he torched for a school-record 279 yards. Manziel ranks in the top 10 nationally in several categories, including total offense, passing efficiency, QBR, touchdowns responsible for and passing yards. He has made a concerted effort to become a better pocket passer, showing more patience when dropping back, but it hasn't taken away from his signature scrambling ability that makes him such an offensive force. If the Aggies continue to win and these two continue to play as they have, one could make the argument that both deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

The offensive line and running game: There were some questions coming into the season about how the Aggies' offensive line would fare after losing Luke Joeckel to the NFL draft and center Patrick Lewis to graduation. So far, the Aggies have continued to shine in this area. The protection provided to Manziel when he passes has been stellar, and the Aggies have not had much trouble running the football, averaging 221.4 yards per game. On Saturday against Arkansas, the Aggies actually had more rushing yards than passing. And the last two weeks, we've seen the coaching staff use all four scholarship running backs (Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams) effectively. Malena continues to be a steady force, Carson has provided a hammer who can break tackles and get short yardage but is explosive enough to get chunks as well, and the Williamses are both explosive talents with a lot of speed.

Deshazor Everett: The junior defensive back has been the Aggies' best defensive player this year. Though cornerback is his usual home, he moved to safety for the last two weeks to help alleviate some issues in the secondary. He performed well in both positions, is second on the team with 31 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions, including a pick-six against Arkansas. If the Aggies had more Everetts, their defense would be better off.

Play-calling: The offensive staff, led by offensive coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney has done a solid job of ensuring the offense utilizes its many weapons. There has been plenty of balance in the play calls (Texas A&M has run the ball 202 times and attempted 179 passes), the pace of the offense remains high, and it appears the Aggies have had an answer for almost anything opposing defenses have thrown at them. The one game in which the Aggies came up short was due to two turnovers against No. 1 Alabama.

The bad

The defense: To say the Aggies have struggled defensively is an understatement. Texas A&M is 112th nationally in yards allowed per game (476.8), 109th in yards allowed per play (6.59), 107th in rushing yards allowed per game (214.8) and 94th in passing yards allowed per game (262). Some of those struggles were the result of missing personnel in the first two games because of suspensions, but that's not an excuse anymore. Alabama and Arkansas both moved the ball with relative ease against the unit. In the second half against Arkansas on Saturday, the A&M defense did show the ability to get some key stops and make a few plays, so that might be encouraging, but it will have to build on that when it faces Ole Miss on Oct. 12.

The kicking game: The Aggies had to make a change at place-kicker, removing Taylor Bertolet from PAT and field-goal duty and replacing him with walk-on Josh Lambo. The issues haven't just been with the actual kickers, but there were also a couple of botched holds in the first four games. Leaving points on the board might not cost Texas A&M against nonconference foes like Sam Houston State or SMU, but it will cost them in SEC play if it continues to happen. Is Lambo the answer? He had a solid day on Saturday against Arkansas, going 6-for-6 on PATs and hitting a 39-yard field goal. So far he's 2-for-2 on field goals and 7-for-8 on PATs with his only miss coming as the result of a fumbled hold.

What's ahead

Texas A&M has a chance to heal up some injuries this week, which is critical after three starters -- defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, linebacker Darian Claiborne and Evans -- got banged up. Safety Floyd Raven, who has been out with a collarbone injury, continues to make progress in hopes of a return before long.

With the meat of the SEC schedule coming up, the Aggies have to get better on defense if they hope to realize some of their season goals. The offense continues to put up 40 points per game, but if for some reason it has an off night, A&M has to be able to rely on the D to help it pull through. Aside from the kicking game, special teams has been solid overall, and if Lambo is the answer at place-kicker, that's a positive for A&M moving forward.

Perhaps most notably, the drama is behind the Aggies. The constant headlines and media circus that followed the team, specifically Manziel, is in the rearview mirror. Led by Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies handled it well and didn't allow it to distract them from the task at hand.
Deshazor Everett Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's willingness to use starters such as safety Deshazor Everett (right) on special teams has allowed the Aggies to have one of the best units in the SEC.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Alabama receiver and return specialist Christion Jones carried the ball out of the end zone on the Crimson Tide's first kickoff return against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, he was quickly faced with a host of defenders.

The first Aggie to make contact was cornerback Tramain Jacobs. Defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. followed him by wrapping up Jones for a tackle. If Hurd would have been unable to wrap him up, cornerback Deshazor Everett was nearby, and so was linebacker Steven Jenkins.

The common thread among the above names? They're all either regular starters or players who have started before for the Aggies.

Special teams -- kickoff and punt coverage units in particular -- are a place where many non-starters find their homes, and Texas A&M is no different. But the Aggies' coaching staff is also liberal about using its best players when the need arises.

The Alabama game was a prime example. With the threat of a return man such as Jones, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide's season-opening win against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks wanted to ensure he had the best players available to prevent Jones from making a game-breaking play. The Aggies got the desired result, as Jones finished with 83 yards on four kickoff returns and just 5 yards on his one punt return.

"We're always going to use the best players," Banks said. "Coach Sumlin's an advocate of 'Jeff, you just tell me who you need and who you want and that's how we're going to do things.'"

Banks said offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder or any of the other A&M assistants also have no qualms about the policy. Since he has been at Texas A&M, Banks said not one coach has said a word about who he can use or not use on special teams, whether it's in the return game or punt or kick coverage.

That luxury is something Banks, who is in his first year in Aggieland, hasn't always had in his career as a special teams coach.

"Usually you get a deal where it's 'Hey, take that guy off of there,' or 'Hey, don't use that guy,'" Banks said. "And here's my deal with that: That's fine. Because I try to be as flexible as I can because we're dealing with 60-80 people and players that have to go in and out, seniors, veterans, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, true freshmen, you've got to coach what you can get and get the best on the field.

"But you also have to be careful because if you practice them in training camp for 30 days and then you get them in the first week and someone says 'Oh no, he can't play on that many special teams,' now you're playing a guy with no experience.'"

So the planning has to begin in August when preseason training camp starts. Banks tries to get a feel for which newcomers have the size, speed or physicality to contribute, and the first week of camp is largely spent trying out numerous players in different roles to get a feel for who he can rely on. The rest of training camp is about getting those that are going to make his two-deep on special teams as many repetitions as possible so that he's comfortable with who is out there come the start of the season.

Playing offensive and defensive starters is nothing new for a Sumlin-coached team. It was something done regularly at Houston when he was there. One of the Cougars' special teams aces in their 12-1 season in 2011 was running back Michael Hayes, who played a major role in the Cougars' backfield, but could regularly be seen making tackles in punt coverage.

That attitude has carried over to Texas A&M. McKinney, who also coaches running backs, made it clear to his position group in the spring of 2012 that they would be expected to contribute on special teams. Players accepted the challenge, and Ben Malena and Trey Williams became key players on special teams.

Malena eventually emerged as the starting running back for the Aggies last season and remains that this season but can be seen on the kickoff return team making blocks and last season spent time covering kicks and punts at times, too.

"You have to realize that special teams wins and loses games," Malena said. "You need the best players out there, whether you're a starter or just a special teams guy. If you're the best player at that position, we need you on the field to help us win. I just took that to heart and will do anything for my team to win."

The example set by players with that attitude has an effect on the younger players, many of whom have a role on special teams. Many true freshmen such as Darian Claiborne -- who started at linebacker last week -- linebacker Shaan Washington, safety Jonathan Wiggins and cornerbacks Alex Sezer and Tavares Garner are already playing key roles on coverage units, and the example set by their elders is important.

"It's huge," Banks said. "They see Ben in practice, they see Jenkins in practice, they see those guys doing special teams drills at a high level. Howard Matthews, De'Vante Harris, Floyd Raven when he was healthy. That's huge. That's bigger than anything I can say. When they go out there and they give us great effort as a staff, that sells it and now you get the buy-in of the younger guys."

Banks said it helps increase the desire for the younger players to contribute, particularly in high-profile games.

"You see the Alabama game and go 'Man, I want to be out there,'" Banks said. "Tavares Garner's a prime example. He gets substituted in for Deshazor Everett and he's like 'Man, I know Deshazor's a veteran guy and he's going to make the play, but I want to be in there.' Then he gets in there and makes a tackle."

There's a balance to be struck, however. Playing starters constantly on coverage teams can fatigue them, especially if they're playing a large amount of snaps on offense or defense. So Banks is conscious to employ the personnel wisely.

"You can't wear a guy out because a Deshazor Everett or a Toney Hurd is so good at everything, you can't overuse them and start them on four special teams and expect them to play 60-80 snaps on defense," Banks said. "There's kind of a responsibility on my end, because I've gotten the leeway from the head football coach and the coordinators to use whoever we want. I think it's really important that you don't take advantage of that deal either."

Complementing players such as Sam Moeller, who has been the Aggies' special teams player of the week twice already this season and doesn't have a major role on defense, with some of these starters are what help the Aggies find a mix that Banks and Sumlin hope lead to one them having one of the best special teams units in the SEC.

"With Coach Sumlin being as awesome as he is about letting us use whoever we need to in order to be the No. 1 team, special teams-wise, in the conference, I think we've got a good mix of him and I of making sure we have the right guys on there, but also give an opportunity to guys who maybe aren't starting on offense or defense," Banks said.

Bama game key for Texas A&M recruiting

September, 13, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like virtually every coach in major college football, Kevin Sumlin understands the importance of recruiting.

It's the lifeblood of a program. As players graduate or move on, new ones must come in to keep success going.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Brett Davis/US PresswireTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said the "move to the SEC has obviously been a boost" for the Aggies in recruiting.
Since taking over at Texas A&M, Sumlin and his staff have leveraged the power of playing in the SEC to their benefit, landing a top 10 recruiting class in the 2013 cycle while being on pace to do so again for the Class of 2014.

And this weekend could be the biggest yet when it comes hosting recruits.

While the college football world has long awaited the Alabama-Texas A&M rematch, the A&M staff has spent months preparing for the recruiting aspect of this weekend.

Roughly 75 recruits are expected to be in attendance for Saturday's highly-anticipated game between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the No. 6 Aggies.

"I think [the game has] already had an impact," Sumlin said. "We have a large number of prospects that are going to be here. The move to the SEC has obviously been a boost for us. I think it wouldn't be as big of a boost if we didn't have some sort of success in the league last year. We didn't have all the success we wanted. We were extremely competitive and won a big game last year. But all that being said, I think the ability to compete and win in this league has really helped us too, in recruiting."

And that's the key. Without the 11-2 record, the Heisman Trophy run for Johnny Manziel or all the attention coming to the program as a result of that success in the SEC, widely considered the country's best conference, this weekend might not have been as big.

While the number of recruits who will be in attendance is impressive, so are the names. Topping that list are a host of highly-regarded 2014 ESPN 300 prospects: defensive end Myles Garrett, athlete Speedy Noil, safety Jamal Adams, defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, athlete Davion Hall, safety Edwin Freeman are among those expected. All of them are top 100 recruits.

“It’s going to be great, knowing A&M is in our top three," said Noil, who is making the trip with Willis, his high school teammate. "I want to see what they offer as an offense.”

Said Willis: “It’s going to be crazy. I’m very excited.”

A host of 2015 ESPN Junior 300 prospects are also expected in attendance. Receiver Tyron Johnson, outside linebacker Malik Jefferson, defensive end Anthony Wheeler and quarterback Kyler Murray are just a sampling of the impressive juniors that will make the trip.

If there's any doubt as to how important recruiting is to the Texas A&M staff, take this as evidence: Sumlin and defensive line coach Terry Price were out on the trail Thursday night via helicopter and trekked to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to see a prospect, fewer than 48 hours before one of the biggest games in program history.

The target? Garrett, the No. 7 player in the 2014 ESPN 300.

Sumlin and offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney also made a helicopter trip to Houston to see then-uncommitted 2013 ESPN 300 receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and 2013 Texas A&M quarterback commitment Kohl Stewart on a nationally-televised game between Sealy (Texas) High and Houston St. Pius X. Seals-Jones eventually committed and signed with the Aggies; Stewart signed but chose to play professional baseball after being chosen fourth overall in the MLB draft this summer.

While the Aggies continue to strengthen their position in recruiting statewide, their longtime rival, Texas, has a lot of question marks at the moment. After a decisive loss to BYU, the Longhorns fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. While the schools don't play each other anymore, they still battle for the same recruits. A win this weekend would further strengthen Texas A&M's position in the talent-rich Lone Star State.

This weekend has become something of a perfect storm for the Aggies. The chance to make a statement on a national level is there, with the eyes of fans across the country watching, not to mention dozens of recruits at Kyle Field to experience it all.

"You don't have a stage like this for this weekend if you're not a competitive program," Sumlin said. "And I think the high school coaches in this state do a fantastic job of coaching and regionally, recognizing that. And I think student-athletes are recognizing that, too, that we've got a great situation here from a stability standpoint, from a support standpoint, from a facilities standpoint and from a league standpoint.

"You don't have to go 700-800-900 miles away anymore to get all those things. That has been a big selling point for us since we've gotten here and I think that message has been driven home every week that we play in the SEC, not just play but play in meaningful games on big stages."


Recruits Miss Lone Star Showdown
National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton spoke with top prospects at Nike's The Opening regional in Dallas. The findings were overwhelming: Players want the game back.